American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s

In brilliantly curating these two essential, mind-blasting, soul-satisfying compendia, critic and editor Gary K. Wolfe has driven the final nail into the coffin lid of the myth that the 1940s represented the true Golden Age of science fiction. Admittedly, the writers who did their groundbreaking work in the 1940s — mostly under the guiding hand of genius editor John W. Campbell — were brave and bold pioneers, forging new visions and new tools that had never previously been seen nor utilized, with little monetary reward and few accolades. Without the seminal work of Asimov, de Camp, van Vogt, and many others, the novels Wolfe assembles here would never have been written. They rest upon the shoulders of giants.

But if a Golden Age signifies the mature efflorescence of a Platonic ideal, the impeccable embodiment of a perfected art form, then it is indeed the 1950s that qualifies as the true Eden. No savvy reader, finishing these two volumes, will feel inclined, I believe, to dispute that.

You can read this argument in Wolfe’s introductory essay — but not in the physical books. The Library of America has cleverly conceived of offloading the bulk of the rich supporting material to a website. (Notes remain in the hardcover editions, but each novel also gets its own insightful essay online by a famous SF writer of modern times.) This gives the books themselves a purity of form that only enhances the reading experience.

The standard classy treatment accorded by the LoA to titans of naturalistic literature consorts remarkably well with these pulp-derived texts. Anyone such as myself, whose original memories of these books involves tattered mass-market paperbacks or small-press hardcovers or digest magazines will be surprised and distinctly chuffed to see how nobly they comport themselves on acid-free paper. In fact, the whole package, from the luxe two-volume slipcased presentation to the choice of perfect vintage illustrations, does immense and loving honor to the material. It signals a longed-for level of literary respect that many older fans thought would never arrive.

Wolfe kicks off in high gear with The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. Depressingly — or exhilaratingly; take your pick — this relentless work of satire reads as if composed just yesterday. So many venal sins of Western society and the modern consumerist lifestyle are mercilessly and wittily excoriated that the reader emerges stunned with disbelief that such a shoddy rapacious edifice as we all inhabit doesn’t collapse at once. (And of course, the 2008 global financial meltdown casts the book in an even more relevant light.)
Advertising copywriter Mitch Courtenay, seeking to promote the colonization of Venus from an Earth whose resources are being steadily drained by insane consumerism and population growth, finds himself fighting for his life, as various factions — rival ad agencies, “Consie” saboteurs — strive for dominance. Pohl and Kornbluth — who wrote a handful of fine books together, but none greater than this one — plunge the reader up to her neck in the future, with no hand-holding or infodumps, just total immersion in their cohesive madhouse, full of eyekicks (the Maidenform bra wing of the Met) and prophecies (omnipresent flat-screen displays). While the book shares the ambiance of such near-contemporaries as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Sweet Smell of Success, it also exudes an eternal Wordsworthian lament: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers….”

As if to confound all readerly expectations and to illustrate the broad dynamic of what was possible and being undertaken by the ambitious writers in the genre at the time, the next offering, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, concerns itself with the small but deep human heart rather than large but shallow human systems: the microcosm, not the macrocosm. Whereas Pohl and Kornbluth’s book was almost journalistic and very hard-nosed, all shiny surfaces and Realpolitik, the Sturgeon tale is poetic and empathetic, all interiors and psychology: inner space. Sturgeon knows damn well how the world works, maybe even better than Kornbluth and Pohl, but chooses to affirm that the soul trumps commerce and civic duty every time.

With Faulknerian bravura, Sturgeon tells the story of the first specimen of Homo Gestalt, the fabulous biography of a composite sport. Five individuals, all “defective” misfits — metaphorical “occupants of a slag dump at the edge of mankind” — learn how to “blesh.” Using complementary paranormal talents, an adult “idiot” named Lone forms a functioning super-organism with three kids and a Down syndrome baby. When Lone is no longer available, a “juvenile delinquent” named Gerry slots into his role. But the symbiotic creature lacks one essential component: a superego. Channeling his own childhood anguish and adult inquisitiveness, Sturgeon fashions a Jungian evolutionary mythology. Full of Kerouackian beat wisdom and countercultural impulses, this novel forms one of the seeds of the New Wave of the 1960s.

Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow asks a large, familiar question: What is the proper role of mankind in relation to the universe? Blind instinctual obedience to natural forces, or exploration and mastery of same? What is hubris, and what is Promethean glory, and are the two even separable? Using an adolescent protagonist and set in a post-apocalyptic venue, this book looms like the template of everything from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. It even comes close to limning the currently fashionable “resurgent Depression” future identified by critic Gary Westfahl in a recent review of the movie Looper.

Two young cousins, Len (who provides the favored perspective) and Esau Colter, live in the New Mennonite town of Piper’s Run, where all learning is harshly circumscribed, in deference to beliefs about the eighty-years-past Destruction that crashed the planet. But the boys long for knowledge of technology, and soon they are exiled, on the road for the fabled Bartorstown, the last redoubt of science. But the road is long and dangerous, and the destination not what they envisioned.

Using plainspoken yet biblical cadences, Brackett — the lone female writer represented here, out of sheer canonical contingencies — evokes an ambiance akin to The Red Pony or Shane, with an overlay of Shirley Jackson creepiness. In the advice from Len’s mentor Hostetter — “You have to live in the world. You can’t get away from it” — we hear the perpetual debate about ivory tower versus the proletariat that rages even today.

The last selection in Volume 1, Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man, does not deal with civic issues or ethical and spiritual issues like its companions, but rather is an exercise in sheer metaphysical queasiness, in cognitive estrangement, in almost Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Owing a debt to all those great 1930s subdimensional stories from such folks as Ray Cummings and Henry Hasse, the book also cannily employs the Hitchcockian master-trope that recurs in the noir films and literature of its day: one false step, deliberate or accidental (in this case, the hero’s chance exposure to a freak change agent) can plunge you from your safe, everyday world into a realm of peril where all the rules are different.

Average businessman Scott Carey, married to Lou, father of Beth, begins to shrink — one-seventh of an inch per day — after his unfortunate encounter with a contaminated glowing wave. With cinematic vividness, Matheson establishes the realtime frame of the novel at the point where Scott is now five-sevenths of an inch tall, trapped in his own basement, struggling for the essentials of life and stalked by his literal bête noire, a black widow spider. (And what will happen in five days, when he hits “zero inches” big?) Long flashbacks full of domestic drama and public, media-stoked tensions (each segment cleverly headed with Scott’s dwindling height in inches at the time) detail how Scott ended up in this fix. And what a proto-Ballardian, existential fix it is:

“The cellar had, for the moment anyway, lost its barren menace. It was a strange, cool land shimmering with rain-blurred light, a kingdom of verticals and horizontals, of grays and blacks relieved only by the dusty colors of stored objects…. Far below he saw [the picture of] the giant woman looking up at him, still leaning on her rock, frozen for all time in her posture of calculated invitation.”

Scott’s plight, a postmodern Robinson Crusoe experience without any compensatory pastoralism, is the perfect Kafkaesque SF allegory for man’s diminished status at the mercy of forces larger than himself.

At our intermission here, we should note another fact about the science fiction novels of the 1950s: they were compact, free of bloat. Four of them fit in the not-quite-800 pages of Volume 1. Any editor attempting to compile a similar set of 1960s books will find, let’s say, Dune, Lord of Light, Bug Jack Barron, and Stand on Zanzibar using up over 1,600 pages alone. Certainly these later books justify their wordage. But the protracted tenor of their stories is radically different from the get-in-do-the-job-get-out affect of their trimmer ancestors.

The first novel in Volume 2, Robert Heinlein’s Double Star, is one of Heinlein’s most entertaining and well constructed. But it’s the one I would have jettisoned, albeit reluctantly, in favor of something from Clifford Simak, either City or Ring Around the Sun. To my mind, Simak’s Norman Rockwell meets Forbidden Planet vibe is unduplicated, and a vital part of the era’s appeal.

But Heinlein’s performance is no small accomplishment and is certainly worthy of inclusion. He builds up a Kiplingesque portrait of a solar system-spanning Empire (shades of Star Wars to come, on smaller scale), then populates it with a colorful set of characters, chief of whom is our narrator, Lorenzo Smythe, ham actor. Lorenzo is tapped to impersonate a kidnapped politco, and finds himself plunged into a ballots-and-bullets milieu he never knew existed. Heinlein does a great job of showing how Lorenzo morphs under his new experiences, becoming literally a different man. As always with Heinlein at his best, the reader discovers an imaginary yet probable world as tangible as the present, with just as many well-machined gears and bells and whistles. Heinlein’s typical mottos — “Pacifism is a shifty doctrine under which a man accepts the benefits of the social group without being willing to pay — and claims a halo for his dishonesty” — fail to irk due to their judicious interpolation, and the book paves the way for such inheritors as John Varley’s The Golden Globe.

Perhaps the first thing that hits the reader right from the get-go in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a commanding, jazzy voice and bravura style. Oh, the earlier books have spoken in their own distinctive tones, particularly Heinlein. But in Bester, the man behind the words is fully on display, strutting, narrating without pretense of objectivity, withholding information and dispensing it adroitly and with convincing expert certitude like an aviator dropping bombs that inscribe an explosive message on the ground for the shocked-and-awed civilians. To use another metaphor, the book is a high-wire act over Niagara Falls, and Bester never stumbles. He himself is really Gully Foyle, our baroque wizard-buffoon hero with a shattered face.

In the twenty-fifth century, teleportation by strictly mental means is a daily action open to everyone. But that’s just the foundation stone of a freakish century of marvels and horrors, where ruling clans have adopted corporate identities, the outer solar system is at war with the inner planets, and one simple-minded plebeian spaceman holds the key to the conquest of all time and space. As Gully Foyle moves from outcast and hunted criminal to self-assured avenger and, ultimately, crucified redeemer of humanity, the reader is treated to suspense and a hundred astonishing milieus, from lunar bacteria farms to cavernous prisons.

Bester adds new concepts seemingly spontaneously, in the manner of Charles Harness, whose The Paradox Men is another 1950s milestone. You might think functioning androids would play a big part in the economy and be worthy of notice. Bester mentions one for the first time only in Chapter Ten, because it makes for a snazzy set piece, then never again. Piling one assault on another, he concludes a chapter where Foyle almost gets caught by the authorities with an atomic war! This is science fiction as a stunning assault on the reader’s senses. Like Foyle in his famous bout of maddened synesthesia, we learn that ideas can pummel. Later writers such as John Wright have taken this tactic to heart.

James Blish’s default persona among fans was felt to be that of the dispassionate intellectual, almost too cerebral to qualify as an upstanding fiction writer expected to plumb the human heart with empathy. His work as a keen-eyed, acerbic critic contributed some truth to that, but the rap was never completely accurate, as A Case of Conscience shows. This tale of a priest’s agony over a taut spiritual dilemma is full of the dark night of the soul.

The first half of our action takes place on Lithia, a planet populated with large reptilian sentients. A small party of humans is wrapping up their expedition meant to decide how our acquisitive species can exploit the place when Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, expedition biologist, comes to a startling conclusion: Lithia’s apparent perfection is a snare set by the Devil to plunge mankind into damnation. When the humans return to Earth with one Lithian in embryo, and the spawn grows up to be the rabble-rousing Egtverchi, it begins to look as if the Father is right.

Blish’s talk-filled yet enrapturing book is the first real example in this omnibus of world-building, that unparalleled achievement at which science fiction excels, establishing a planet, its ecosystem, and millennia of history as a grand thought-experiment. It pointed the way for writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Nancy Kress, and Mary Doria Russell to explore matters theological and spiritual in science-fictional terms, and represented a leap forward in the depiction of relations between humans and the Other.

One can almost hear the zither soundtrack to The Third Man begin to play in the opening pages of Algis Budry’s masterful Who? This elaborate espionage game involving posthuman identity might be the quintessential Cold War fable. Himself intimate with Eisenhower-era exigencies (Budrys was a Soviet-traumatized Lithuanian expat from age five), the young writer brought also a sharp sense of mainstream literary history and standards to the genre.

Irreplaceable scientist Lucas Martino, injured in a lab explosion, has been captured by the Soviets. Repaired and traded back to the Allies, he has been rendered a cyborg: featureless metal skull and robot arm. Government man Shawn Rogers is his minder, tasked with determining if it’s really Martino inside the shell or a fake. The subsequent relationship between the two men crystallizes the Uncertainty Principle, and echoes that twisted bond between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Meanwhile, the reader is exposed to Martino’s back-story in a beautifully naturalistic biography that illuminates what drives a dedicated researcher, and the interpersonal costs such a life entails.

This novel exemplifies the effect of progress on SF, an effect both meaningful and negligible. The story’s central conceit evaporates in our age of DNA testing. But at the same time, with just one simple acknowledgement of the limitations of past technology, the book retains all the vigor and epistemological rage it had at birth.

Fritz Leiber occupied a unique space in the field, a blend of Ben Hecht, Oscar Wilde, Robert E. Howard, and James M. Cain. Erudite and world-weary, yet also droll and full of pagan gusto, he gave us works that ranged from potent paranoia (You Are All Alone) to charming sword and sorcery (the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series). In The Big Time, he attains a formalistic triumph — slyly turning what is essentially a stage play into a novel, without straining or contortions — and establishes a level of deracinated “culture shock” that has hardly been matched. “It is pure hell to remember your future.”

A tiny pocket universe serves as a kind of USO stop for battered soldiers. But these soldiers, members of the force known as Spiders, enemies of the Snakes, are special. They are recruited from and fight their battles throughout all of time, ranging across the centuries to control the course of history. The Place is staffed by six people who minister to these itinerant warriors. A complex blend of geisha/gigolo and psychiatrist, the staffers have myriad other talents as well. Our narrator is Greta Forzane, “twenty-nine and a party girl.” We witness one episode of R&R with big repercussions for all the players, a slice of war which, coming hard on the heels of the Korean conflict, bore deep resonances then and eternal verities now. Like some Eugene O’Neill play filmed through an SF lens, The Big Time offers cathartic drama blended with teleological nausée.

In his insightful forerunner of an essay “The Fifties,” published in 1977 and hosted now at the Library of America page, Barry Malzberg opined:

Say this at the outset: there has only been a trickle of novels through the fifty-five-year history of science fiction that have been consensually accepted as masterpieces, absolute examples of what the field can be at its best. With no exception that I can glimpse, all of them were published in the fifties.

The subsequent thirty-five years have given us retrospective cause to modify that statement considerably, admitting many more titles to the canon. But this essential collection proves that while the masterpieces of the 1950s have been equaled, they have hardly ever been surpassed.

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